After the coughing has stopped and the tests have come back negative, a fresh battle begins for some Covid-19 patients. Symptoms typically include headaches, lethargy, anxiety and insomnia, exhaustion and irritability. Some dream frequently about death. Others develop phobias linked to the places or activities that likely expose them to the virus.
Suhrita Basak, a 48-year-old businesswoman from Delhi, is still scared of basements, two months after she tested negative for Covid-19. “I don’t like to go down there. I think that’s where I contracted the virus, while sorting through my material,” she says.
She finds it hard to take stairs below street level, even to a clinic. She sometimes sees flashes from her ambulance ride to the hospital. “I keep imagining my parents, my husband or my two children getting infected, taking that journey and not returning. I worry about myself too. I escaped the first time, what if I get infected again?” she says.
The kinds of symptoms Basak has been experiencing are being called post-Covid stress disorder, similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but not as severe. Frontline workers can experience symptoms of this too, due to the heightened risk they face, as well as the strain of being overworked, exhausted and isolated away from family.
“For those recovered from Covid-19, survivor’s guilt, the fear of losing loved ones to similar events, and the fear that the event may recur are all symptoms that overlap with PTSD,” says Dr Rajesh Sagar, professor of psychiatry at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS). “Signs to watch out for are the person cutting themselves off from their normal routines and the people in those routines and the person having trouble functioning on a day-to-day basis.”
Doctors say the isolation necessitated by the virus can make matters worse. “These individuals may lack immediate social and emotional support due to the need to self-quarantine. Just talking to someone who is back from hospital and isolated can act as a lifeline to them, because the patient is desperate to find normalcy again,” Dr Sagar says. “If stress reactions persist for a month or more, and is disrupting normal life, the person should seek the help of an expert.”
Basak’s fears diminished over time and talking, she says, helped a great deal. “I would feel worst when I was alone in the house. The sight of a packet of medicine on a table was enough to trigger anxiety,” she adds. “While it would help if I could go out more and leave my immediate surroundings, time has been a great healer and talking obsessively about it all to my friends has helped.”